In a forgotten corner of the chapel basement I was introduced to my mother.
The fluorescents flickered in the stained drop ceiling as I sat next to the only other poor soul forced to take “Music in Worship Literature” with Professor North. Two mornings per week week we sat exposed, unable to hide behind more industrious students as this Dickensian schoolmarm lectured about men with funny hats who played the organ. I know it had much to do with the mutual dislike between dear Ms. North and myself – as my piano professor she had very strong opinions about my meager abilities – but most days I could barely stay awake, and those I did were spent attending to my growing Tetris addiction.
Personal feelings aside, it was in her class that I encountered classical liturgy for the first time.1 She walked over to the saloon-tuned piano and informed my fellow inmate and myself that we would be singing out of the Book of Common Prayer psalter. I had no idea what the “Book of Common Prayer” nor a “psalter” were, but I did know there would be no singing from me. But she was not to be gainsaid and as the handouts were distributed under her severe gaze I realized two things: 1) I would most definitely be singing whether I liked it or not, and 2) the “psalter” refers to the book of Psalms, in this case metered and set to musical notation.
Prof. North explained that we would “sing” (really, more of an intoned reading) half a psalm verse, changing the note just before reaching the asterisk, at which time there would be a breath followed by another note change.
It did not go well.
Neither my fellow-sufferer nor I sang confidently, but the painful sounds went on for more than a few awkward minutes. Finally she relented and we retreated back into our cones of silence and Tetris while our dear pedagogue launched into a discussion on the use of psalms in worship throughout the ages, eventually landing for the day on their settings and use in Book of Common Prayer. She pulled out her own battered copy and skimmed over the various liturgies, songs, prayers, and articles held within, specifically highlighting “morning prayers,” a service built on the Psalms that could be performed either alone or in community. Again, personal antipathy aside, she most certainly did not have to go this far highlighting the BCP, and she certainly did not have to show us her own copy, nor clue us into her favorite editions. While not exactly a “book banning” school, I’m sure the trustees would not have been pleased with the glowing recommendation their “Bible only” students were receiving of a mainline book of worship.
While I was not in any way converted that morning to liturgical spirituality, I also wasn’t entirely turned off by our bad singing. There was indeed something mysteriously . . . rooted . . . in the communal singing of these millennia-old words, and I was growing desperate at that point for something to anchor my faith.
Also, I really like old books.
– – –
Flash forward eight years.
As I sat in the Bishop’s overstuffed armchair, explaining how I had come to fall in love with liturgical and contemplative spirituality, I thought of Ms. North. That day, I spoke of how this worship, so rooted in the history and communion of the Church, has pulled on me like a gravity well, slowly but inexorably drawing each year’s orbit ever-closer to the waiting arms of something that has called me since I was young. I told the Bishop – who himself had moved from the Restoration Movement to the Anglican – that in my recent upheaval I was considering a ministry in a church like I’d always known, despite the fact that the worship had ceased to speak into my life.
With a spark in his eye, the old priest looked at me knowingly and said, “Yes, you could. But when Mother Liturgy calls . . . .”
1. A transliteration of the Greek leitourgia, that means “the work of the people” – one of the many words translated as “worship” in the New Testament (also often translated as “ministry” and “service”). I fear to say too much and too little about this word that has so deeply shaped my faith journey, so for now, let’s simply say that a liturgy is a service of worship which is in some degree scripted and includes the full participation of the worshiping community.↩